Has there ever been a director as Marmitey as Lars von Trier? And, let’s be honest, that’s exactly how von Trier likes it. At least for a while, there were few directors as keen as him to cultivate their own bad boy image. Which in turn makes it difficult to consider his films independently from one’s reaction to von Trier himself – and as a result, I’m always surprised to find that I truly enjoy many of his films (though for now I keep avoiding Breaking the Waves and The House that Jack Built).
Europa, the third stop on my tour of my Criterion backlog, is no exception. Of the three films I’ve watched since beginning this series, this is probably the one I’ve enjoyed most immediately.
I’m by no means a von Trier afficionado, but my impression is that while there are elements here that recall his later films, Europa is still quite a different beast from the likes of Dogville, Antichrist or Nymphomaniac. Those films go out of their way to challenge the audience in one way or another, to dare them to get up, shout obscenities, throw things at the screen or walk out, or any combination of these. Europa doesn’t have that. I can imagine audiences being nonplussed by the film, but it doesn’t have the quality of von Trier’s later films that at best feels Puckish, at worst like he’s an eternal adolescent.
Which is not to say that there aren’t recognisable elements here. From what I’ve seen, Lars von Trier is a tremendously playful stylist who likes to try out different things, to mix them in unexpected ways to see what this produces. Even the Brechtian minimalism of Dogville, or indeed the apparent, well, dogma of the Dogme 95 manifest (the “vows of chastity” that von Trier proclaimed together with Thomas Vinterberg), seemed more like a game of cinematic Calvinball, where rules are set up as quickly as they are dropped for the next thing that could be fun – much like the cinematic challenges von Trier created for his mentor Jørgen Leth in The Five Obstructions. The director enjoys variety too much to let himself be bound by any set of rules for more than one film.
That playfulness is in full evidence in Europa, which in its first five minutes feels like the best film adaptation of Kafka that never existed through the lens of a film so noir, it’s amazing he wasn’t sued retroactively by Anish Kapoor, which in turn reflects its inspirations in German expressionism and the stylistic excess of, say, Fritz Lang’s Spione. Von Trier obviously relishes this chance to indulge in the archetypes and tropes of the originals he’s riffing off of, giving us nightmarish vignettes that could be straight out of The Trial and a setup and characters that we could easily have discussed in our most recent podcast episode. All of this is matched by a striking blend of artifice and realism: von Trier makes heavy use of rear projection, often to add to the air of unreality he’s aiming for, and some of the elements of the image are coloured while most of the image is shot in high-contrast black and white, giving us the impression that von Trier is making his Wizard of Ozropa, but at the same time the many scenes that take place inside the night train that the protagonist Leopold (Jean-Marc Barr) works on as a sleeping-car conductor shudders and shakes as if it was really moving along the tracks of post-war Germany. It is the elements that feel most real that lend the rest that is dreamlike its potency: real trains in imaginary Europas.
Europa is the kind of film that celebrates film; thematically, it may not be about film, but much of the enjoyment of Europa lies in how von Trier reflects cinema. Certainly, its Kafka-meets-Greene story has some thematic hooks, and you could read some of von Trier’s famous anti-Americanism (that he has denied himself) into its ineffectual, self-deluded, doomed protagonist, but my reading is that Europa doesn’t use its style to tell its story and develop its themes: its story and themes are there to allow von Trier to revel in a style of filmmaking for which he was born a quarter-century too late. Its joys lie in that amazing scene of the train emerging from its deep, dark cave, pulled along the tracks by dishevelled German survivors, in its expressionistic shots of villains and victims and femmes fatales, in the way the train’s emergency brake is a bright, blood-like red surrounded by a monochromatic image. In a way, I found watching Europa much like listening to a virtuoso pianist showing off his skill and having a grand time doing so, and afterwards I might not remember what he played, just that he played it brilliantly.
And all of this without von Trier being sadistic towards his characters or his audience! Certainly, Leopold gets a horrible (if poetic) ending, but this is distinctly different from the way the director tortures his characters in Dancer in the Dark or Dogville. Leopold is the naive patsy in a film noir, he is the protagonist in a Kafkaesque tale. We’re listening to the chords that the melody requires. Europa might frustrate or bore some because it does not want you to relate to its characters. We’re not watching a person meet their awful fate, we’re watching the genre functioning as it was designed to do. We’re watching a film enjoying what it is and having fun with itself. Some may find this masturbatory, an accusation von Trier might get more of a kick out of than is entirely decent – but I would say I was having at least as much fun as the film and its director were.
Verdict: Well, much of that is already in the preceding two paragraphs, but let’s summarise: Europa isn’t the kind of harrowing, gruelling film that some later films by Lars von Trier are, but like them, they show von Trier to be a director that enjoys revelling in style and mood – and stripped of the apparent need to provoke, Europe ends up being a love letter to German expressionism, film noir, Franz Kafka – and, overall, cinema as pure style. I’m sure there are essays upon essays talking about the themes of Europa, or what it says about post-war Germany or about the way the United States swooped in to pick and choose which bits of the rubble were useful to them and which weren’t, regardless of how morally compromised they were. For me, the joy of this film lies in how it celebrates pure style. If I were to compare it to anything else, it would probably be Bram Stoker’s Dracula, and how Francis Ford Coppola made pastiche of a filmmaking style long gone into something almost erotic. If this sounds like your kind of thing, track down Europa, put in the disk, lean back and listen to Max von Sydow’s voice hypnotizing you: “You will now listen to my voice… On the count of ten you will be in Europa…”